Sunday, August 12, 2012

Badminton, table tennis, and tennis in 2012 London Olympics

These sports are the ones I play almost exclusively and also follow the most, so they are the most interested ones to me in Olympics.  Also, these three sports represent the pinnacle of how humans use tools to compete directly with each other, or, the "highest" combination of human physical and mental ability and skills in sports.  Badminton requires the utmost agility, table tennis fastest reflex, and tennis power generation.

In badminton, MS, WS, and MD are the most remarkable.  In MS, one can only say the legend continues (confirmation bias alert).  The Chinese media for all their foolishness make up the notion of “四大天王”, or "four kings" or "fantastic four", but really, there is Lin Dan, and there is everybody else.  This is admittedly a slight to Lee Chong Wei, who likely would have won at least one Gold medal, one world championship, one more AE, and one Asian Games Gold without LD.  The final was very similar to the 2011 World final, except that LD didn’t face any match points in London.  LCW prepared quite well against LD at the end, unlike the surprise he got from 2011.  At 19:19, LD attacked quickly to gain an advantage.  At 20:19, LD played fast but didn’t overforce it.  LCW varied by attacking a couple of times but when shots were returned he played it safe as well.  It was a long rally involving a variety of shots, both players well-balanced, with LD perhaps a bit more pro-active.  The difference is only the air which flew clearly from LCW’s back, sending the shuttle eventually long.  LD and LCW have been the two best MS players since 2008.  LD wins most of the times, especially in big events.   This is likely due to the playing styles of the two.  LD is offense-oriented.  So at crucial points, he can and will try to unleash the winning smashes.  His opponents are well aware of that, which adds pressure to their strategies.  LCW is more defense-oriented, so at crucial points his natural tendency is to wear opponents down.  LCW did attack this time at 19:20, but when it didn’t work, he waited for opportunities, which was the right thing to do, except that drift was not on his side.  LD also is taller and bigger, so his presence at the front court makes LCW hesitant.  To use a running analogy of 10 km race.  A few years back, LD would win by a lap (e.g., 2008).  In the past two years, LD and LCW are head and shoulder at the last 100 meter, but LD is naturally a better dasher.

The young Li Xuerui won WS.  From the Chinese’ perspective, her victory was slightly tempered by the fact that she didn’t beat the major threats from India and Thailand, who were taken out by Wang Yihan and Wang Xin.  I like her style a lot (“Who will you pick for a fight?”) and hope it is the moment when the legend begins. Wang Yihan would have been an excellent and thoroughly deserved choice for the Gold as well, too bad in the final she faced the only player in the world who can consistently beat her.

Cai Yu/Fu Haifeng won the MD.  This is really a gratifying sight, of which one can say the legend completes.  The only thing CY/FHF hasn’t won is Asian Games, but that is not a particularly important parameter because Europeans who are strong in MD do not participate.  The pair has won 4 world championships, 2 AE, all the team titles since 2004, world No 1 for so long, Silver in 2008, and Gold in 2012.  MD has always been the most competitive in badminton, with many potential title contenders and new, strong pairs coming up all the time.  It is, therefore, the most remarkable that CY/FHF have been able to maintain their high levels since at least 2004.  During this time, many good pairs have come and gone, such as Koo Kien Keat/Tan Boon Heong, Markis Kido/Hendra Setiawan, and Lee Yong Dae/Jung Jae Sung, only CY/FHF have remained.  They are by far the most successful MD in the history of badminton.  Whether they are the best, like LD, is unclear.  There may never be a answer to this question, but at least they enter the conversation.  The downside of all this is that where is the next dependable Chinese MD?

In table tennis, Zhang Jike won a well-deserved MS, while Wang Hao got three consecutive silvers to three different players, which must have been a record in Olympics, not just in table tennis.  I suspect Wang Hao lacks a bit killer instinct.  He is a slow starter, while his opponents at the final always struck first and fast before he could respond.  Zhang Jike thus becomes the youngest MS to win the world championship, world cup, and Olympic gold and the first with all three titles at the same time.  The only blemish is for the world cup and London, merely two Chinese players were entered.  These days the biggest challenge to individual Chinese players comes from their teammates.  See Ma Lin vs Wang Liqin.  Playing style wise, the only player who has any advantage over Zhang Jike is Ma Long, who was excluded in the world cup and singles in London and beaten by Wang Hao during the last world championship.  So obviously Ma Long has a lot to do, and Zhang Jike needs to consistently beat Ma Long to show he is truly one of the greats in history. 

Li Xiaoxia won WS over Ding Ning in a match marred by the judge messing around with DN’s serves.  It was a golden opportunity missed by DN, who had beaten Li for her world title and world cup a year earlier.  DN is still young and has her chances.  But again, her competition will come from her teammates, and who knows who will come up in the next four years where only two slots are available for China.  

An observation in London is that many matches were close, much closer than in Beijing.  Chinese actually lost matches during team competitions or won by 4:3 in singles, which did not happen in 2008.  It can be due to the host factor in 2008, playing singles prior to teams in 2012, or other players are getting better. Germany now has a stronger team that can really challenge China.  Japanese men did not perform well this time, but they are young and have potentials.  South Korea’s three players should have their swan song this time, and what will their successors be like?

In tennis, Federer ran out of gas in the final and likely lost his last chance at Gold.  A bit surprising that Novak Djokovic lost the Bronze medal fight.  Despite his great success in 2011, if he wants to be in the same sentence as Federer and Nadal, he needs to get his form back up quick, as Murray seems ready to take off.  Nadal pulled out of the Olympics and subsequent events, so it is confirmed that he hasn’t been well since May.  When he comes back, he does need to have more confidence in his backhand so that he doesn’t have to run around too often (“Sports news before 2012 Olympics”).

Serena Williams won the WS.  She is the best female player since Graf, and her 6:0, 6:1 win is another example of her being a smart player and what is wrong with women’s play (“Sports news before 2012 Olympics”).

Overall, most of the best players in the world were present and tried their best in London, the competition was fierce, and the winners were well deserved.  It is regrettable that some top players could not come due to injuries or the stupid quotas.

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